In which Lóren and Draymûc traipse through the woods.
It was cold and rainy. Lóren was miserable.
Roughing it wasn’t as fun as she’d thought it’d be. There was no nice and warm and — most importantly — dry hall to take refuge in, in weather like this. There were no servants, no meals, no feasts. And though insisted on bathing in every watering hole they passed, her clothes got filthy quickly. And there weren’t enough of them.
And then there was the hunger. If Draymûc couldn’t catch anything, they’d go hungry. Lóren hated that feeling more than any other, they way her stomach felt like it was slowly gnawing at her innards the longer and longer they went without food. Sometimes they could go two or three days without eating, before a squirrel was foolish enough to wander into one of his traps and end up, skinned and gutted, on a spit above their campfire. And the longer they went hungry, the woozier and weaker she felt.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that she chose this.
It hadn’t been that long ago when her father the duke had summoned her to his office. His maidservant had closed the fine oak door behind her, and in that warmly torchlit stone room — with its lavish library, filled with leather-bound codices, behind Father’s work desk — and he had informed her in his quiet way that she was a geomancer. It wasn’t like she didn’t already know that! She had been able to make rocks fly of their own accord and summon seats for herself up out of the earth since she was a little girl … but Hardric was a small cold place, a long thin coastline jammed between mountains and the boreal ocean.
“I am sending you to the Mages’ Guild in Sisternopolis,” he had said, “the finest place in the world for elementals to train. I can either book you passage on a ship, or, if you prefer, I can assign you a bodyguard to take the trek overland.”
Lóren had never liked ships. Strange, that, she reflected. Perhaps it was because she was a geomancer, an elemental mage of the earth? Being on a ship, even one riding at anchor made her feel lost, adrift. She’d said she’d make the trek with hardly a second thought.
But, as she huddled under the impromptu lean-to, green spruce boughs draped over a branch Draymûc had set up in some strange way the knights knew, the campfire sputtering and steaming and altogether refusing to cooperate and keep her warm, her belly empty and taut for the third night in a row again, Lóren had to admit that the sea journey would have afforded some comforts. Food everyday, for one — even if it was just the ship’s hardtack. Stops in civilization, at the trade ports of Hardric’s neighbor Rohdric’s colonies around the Veldric coast, for another. She remembered taking out her father’s atlas and thinking that, as soon as they had crossed the mountains, they’d stop in Kwamopolis and then just follow the River Ae the rest of the way down. Ha! Either Draymûc was the worst pathfinder in the history of the Hardric knighthood — Lóren hadn’t quite counted that out yet — or he was deliberately keeping her away from the cities, or civilization at all, for that matter.
For some reason, that possibility bothered her. But he was all she had. She had to trust him. Beyond the hiss and pale steam of campfire working through waterlogged wood, the forest spread, inky black, in every direction. Draymûc was still out there somewhere, perhaps checking a trap or something. He had been all day.
The rain kept falling. It would have been more relaxing had its patter-patter not coincided with a drip-drip on her forehead. She sighed, stretched out, cupped some dirt in her hands, and tented them over her chest. The earth responded, affording her a crude (but dry!) tent, and she turned over, trying to go to sleep, wondering uneasily how far they had actually gotten in the three months since they had left and how far they had yet to go.
It was morning and still overcast when Draymûc came back. Lóren had been eying a shelf fungus growing out of a tree, wondering whether or not eating it would kill her, and was positively delighted when she saw the two large whole trout he was carrying.
“There’s a river a half a day’s hike from here,” he told her. “Eat, and recover your strength.” He built the fire back up and gutted the trout, laying them on a pair of large whole leaves over the coals. Lóren’s mouth watered, and she could hardly bear to be patient as he squinted at the fungus she’d been looking at and asked, “Do you want it?”
“Is it edible?”
“It’s a dryad’s saddle. They’re quite tasty.”
“What, you mean we’ve been surrounded by edible things and I’ve been going hungry this whole time?”
“I’ve been too busy to stop and show you what’s good to eat. Meat doesn’t catch itself, and firewood doesn’t gather itself, you know.” Lóren thought she detected a mild tone of disapproval in his voice.
“It is what it is. Your father really should’ve made sure you could survive in the wild before letting you traipse through it. Or did he think your magic was a substitute for survival?”
“I thought we would’ve stopped off in Kwamopolis?”
“Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Your father isn’t exactly on speaking terms with the Kwama Lord right now. They had a bit of a row a few years back.”
She pursed her lips. He pulled out a dagger and chopped the dryad’s saddle. She had to admit, she had no idea how he was going to actually cook it. What did one use to cook, anyway? She vaguely remembered her father’s kitchen, a great, smoky, hot, and noisy hall with about five full-time staffers but a veritable army in the run-up to great feasts. But her father had not encouraged her to learn how to cook — “the kitchens are not the proper place for a duchess,” he had said — and even when she did wander into them, enthralled by the great smoky industrial din that went into making a meal, staffers promptly shooed her out (though, she had to admit, often with a sweet in hand).
He wrapped it in another leaf and set it down on the coals next to the trout, and, that done, stood and stretched. “Mistress Lóren,” he said, “do you mind keeping a watch on dinner? It won’t be done for a bit and I’d rather not a bear get it. I’m going to fetch some water.”
“I thought you said the river was half a day away?” she asked his retreating back.
“I did. This isn’t going to be very good water. I’m going to have to boil it to make it safe to drink. But that’s better than no water, is it not?”
She sighed, and turned her eye back to the fish and fungus slowly cooking on the coals. It smelled delicious. Bears? Should she be surprised? Black and brown bears were native to the high mountains, and occasionally wandered down to the boreal coast for some ursine purpose or another. She rather hoped that she wouldn’t meet one — she had no idea how she’d protect herself.
Watching food cook was a rather tedious task. She’d taken to twirling some pebbles in the air to pass the time when Draymûc returned some ten minutes later, his herald tunic dangling from his kettle-helmet-balancing hands. A slightly fetid scent wafted from him.
He dropped the helmet into the middle of the coals, and she could see that it was filled with foul water. He handed her the strange pale roots. “Do you know how to grind?”
“Nobody ever showed me.”
“Well, you’ll just have to learn here and now. Nobility or no nobility, you’re out in the wild and you have to survive. These are cattail roots, and you can grind them into a powder to make a porridge with. You just need two stones — a long flat work slate” — he pulled one out of his pack — “and a smaller one you grip in your hand” — he grabbed a cobble innocently lying near his feet. Then he laid the cattail root on top of the slate, pushed the cobble down onto it, and began dragging it in a back-and-forth motion. It took time, but she could see he was turning the root into a paste.
He pulled out a copper mess, dipped it into the now-boiling water, poured the paste into it, mixing the concoction together with his dagger until it it formed a gruel, and handed her it. She took it and drank deep. It was plain and bland, but nourishing. It’d have to do. She handed it back to him, and he tossed her another root. “Now you try.”
After a while, she put the cobble down, her arms aching. Did the kitchen staff always have to work this hard? But there was a certain satisfaction in it — she’d worked for her food, and that made it, somehow, all the more satisfying. The leaden sense of frustration she’d been feeling ever since they’d started on their trip began to dissipate … she could swear the sun was shining brighter, that the birds were chirping louder, that the wind blowing through the trees felt more breezy, somehow.
Later that evening, contented and lying around the campfire, he told her: “There’s a mine nearby. We’re going to get some supplies from them.